State Agency Faces Elimination After First Black Woman Takes Charge

Chair, Malia Cohen (left) and Brenda Fleming executive director of the Board of Equalization give testimony to the Governance and Finance Committee.

In January, members of the California Board of Equalization (BOE) selected Malia M. Cohen, former President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, to chair the 140-year-old state agency.

Cohen became the first Black woman elected to the board last May and the first to lead the agency responsible for representing taxpayer interests and “equalizing” county-by-county tax assessments across the state.

Now, less than eight weeks into her 4-year term and under two months as chair, Cohen has been thrust into a difficult fight, as lawmakers grapple with whether or not to dismantle the agency, she finds herself justifying her job, her $151,260 salary, and the very existence of the agency she leads.

“Here we are, members of the new board, just shy of eight weeks in – of coming into this position – we now have to defend keeping the board elected,” Cohen said.

Cohen said the board represents the interests of many disadvantaged Californians such as small business owners who may not be able to afford an attorney or families who speak English as a second language and people impacted by wildfires. BOE is a champion against unfair practices like the widespread undervaluation of homes in predominantly Black neighborhoods.

Lawmakers held hearings to check in on the operations of the board since its functions were reduced by Gov. Jerry Brown two years ago. A state audit before that decision revealed a series of shocking incidents of mismanagement and corruption involving members of the previous board, including the misappropriation of $350 million.

During the hearing, Cohen asked lawmakers to give the new board, under her leadership, time to fix “the sins of the previous class.”

Former Gov. Brown signed Assembly Bill 102 or the Taxpayer Transparency and Fairness Act into law in 2017 following the audit that uncovered the scandals at the BOE. The legislation stripped the state agency and its elected board of much of its tax administration and adjudication powers. The law also relieved the agency of its tax collection responsibility.

New state agencies like the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration and the Office of Tax Appeals were created to take over some of those functions while others were absorbed by existing state offices.

The BOE is the only elected government board of its kind in the United States that is specifically set up to represent taxpayer interests.

California State Controller Betty T. Yee, who was once an elected officer of the 4-member board, believes the board is no longer relevant.

“For me the answer is no,” said Yee. “The BOE does not need to continue to have an elected board. The name on the door of who administers these programs is less important than how they are administered.”

Since the board’s mandate is constitutional, the process to determine its fate will take a few years. Legislators would have to vote to place a constitutional amendment regarding the Board’s fate before California voters on the 2020 ballot.

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